The Modern Minimalist

April 30, 2012 § 6 Comments

I’ve been without a cell phone for so long now that I hardly remember what it was like to have one. I’ve enjoyed the cost savings, and have found that our circumstances really only require one cell phone for our whole family – and it doesn’t have to be mine.

The problem I’ve been having lately, strictly from a minimalist perspective, is that when we hit the road, trail or beach, we cart along all of these things: A photo camera, my Flip camera for videos, one or two birding guides, George’s cell phone, an iPod for music and a GPS for geocaching. Sometimes we forget one of these items, causing much stress and anguish. Other times the batteries die, causing anger, frustration and swearing.

The upshot is that I’m thinking that my modern mode of minimalism might make me a candidate for a smartphone. A smartphone would allow me to have all of these things in one compact unit.

I bristle at the idea of sending any more of my hard-earned dollars to the House of Jobs, and I reeeallly hate the idea of a monthly fee for the dubious privilege of having a phone that seems just so consumery. But I love the idea of having just the one thing. It seems more minimal than what I’m currently doing. In fact, when I was playing with George’s sister’s iPhone at the birthday dinner, taking photos, videos and getting names for the constellations (coolest thing ever!) on one screen, I found myself really liking it for its simplicity.

I also really like the idea of Instagram. That sounds like fun, and it could be good for the blog. Right now, uploading photos is such a chore that you’ve probably noticed that I stopped doing it altogether.

So what’s a modern minimalist to do? Succumb to the consumer trappings found in iPhones, Droids, Noids or whatever phones are out there? Or be the last remaining non-smartphone user on the planet?

I would tell you to call me with your answers, but, well, I don’t have a phone.

 

 

 

…And We’re Back

April 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

I fully subscribe to the idea put forth in that Waylon Jennings lyric: “I’ve got the right to disappear.”

But I also have the right to come back. And here I am!

I took a little unannounced hiatus from blogging because, truly, I was just so very into living my life. My fortieth birthday has come and gone. Tax season left me a bit poorer but for the most part unscathed. Family visited. Some beloved people in my life have died, others have been born and one dear friend was diagnosed with cancer. I had some minor health issues that are very close to being resolved. There’s been a a boom in my freelance business.

But through it all, I have to report that it has been such a blessing to live in a clean and uncluttered space, to be able to eat the plant-based diet that keeps me healthy (although the birthday weekend did find me chowing on four lamb momos at the local Himalayan joint – savory!) and to have the free time to run, walk, hike, bird and cook.

When I first started exploring minimalism it felt a bit gimmicky. Let’s de-clutter the closet, let’s take our own packages to the grocery, let’s eliminate plastic bags, spend less, make our own food, grow our own food, cook our own food, eat our own food, etc. and so on…

But now that I have been on dedicated path for all this time, none of it feels affected or forced. I don’t think twice about sending unused items to Goodwill. But I do think five or six times about buying things! It’s become effortless — second nature even — to research products to make sure they are safe, non-toxic and as cruelty free (to animals and humans) as possible. Exercising, sharing a meal, reading a good book, feeding my backyard birds – all have become the most rewarding ways for me to spend my time that don’t tax my anxieties, my wallet or the planet.

Life happens whether or not we’re organized, centered and serene. And I am here to provide my testimony that when a simple, deliberate life becomes your top priority, all of the difficulties, changes and challenges become much easier to manage. Wanting less, spending less, owning less has given me more than I ever imagined possible.

Namaste, minimalists!

Occupied

October 26, 2011 § 8 Comments

I wholeheartedly support the Occupy Wall Street protesters, and I share their outrage.
 
It was, in fact, the recent crashes and bailouts that fanned the flames of my anger to the point where I decided to take serious action to reduce my involvement in corruption, greed, warmongering, abuse and arrogance of every kind.
 
Further compounding my desire to find my way out of this system is how the company I work for has reacted to the recession. In a knee-jerk move after the last crash, my employer cut our employee discounts, doubled employee contributions to health care and stopped matching our 401(k) contributions. And at that point no one at our company had received a raise in two years. We all just shrugged it off and felt grateful to still be working.
 
Flash forward to now, and the company is having a boom. We are, quite literally, enjoying profits never before seen in our company’s 53-year history.
 
The CEO now drives one of these:
 
 

This is a $95,000 car.

 
I have not received a raise, nor have any of my counterparts. They have not re-instated matching funds for 401(k) benefits. Our health care costs are still higher. Our workload has tripled (gotta make those numbers!) as our headcount has decreased.
 
And yet, at the end of the day, I find myself breathing a sigh of relief that I am still employed.
 
I can’t quit my job yet. But I’m diligently working my way out of the system so that I can stop contributing to these ills, and so I am no longer a victim of them.
 
I’m occupying my life. And here’s how you can, too:
 
Know where your food comes from. Stop contributing to the oil-churning machine that is our national food system. Big companies are making huge profits off of inhumane, unhealthy practices at the expense of your well-being and your wallet. Much of what your grocery store is selling you is from China, Australia, South America and Mexico. Read labels before you buy. Do you really want your kid drinking apple juice from China? I don’t.
 
Eliminate your debt. Do whatever it takes. Sell whatever you can. Don’t let the banks have any power over you.
 
Stop shopping.  Buying the latest thing is not going to give you the life you want. Stay away from the mall and spend some time thinking about what your soul wants for this life. Whatever it is, it’s probably not right next to the Cinnabon.
 
When you do shop, buy quality-made products from companies that promote ethical treatment toward the environment, their employees and their customers. Research companies at goodguide.com or do your own research.
 
Support local, family-owned businesses. Keep dollars flowing through your own community where it will do the most good. Say no to Wal-Mart!
 
Do not buy fast food. It’s not cheaper in the long run when you consider the cost to your health and the environment. Plus, the business practices of fast food companies are notoriously unethical.
 
Drive less. Gas isn’t getting any cheaper, and Big Oil is subsidized by the government. My guess is that you aren’t. Walk more, take public transportation – just do whatever you can to get out of your car. Besides, walking is a very pleasant form of transport.
 
Move your banking to a credit union or local bank. Credit Unions are non-profit. Local banks employ your neighbors and, frankly, have better customer service. I just re-financed through my local bank and the experience was pleasant and I got a great rate.
 
Take care of the things you do own so that you replace them less frequently – or never. Mend those holes, fill those scratches. Extend the lives of the items you own so you spend less.
 
Refuse to bring things into your home that you don’t know how to responsibly dispose of. This is tough, but if you think about the entire life cycle of an item, you may think twice about bringing it home. If you know it’s just going to end up in a landfill, perhaps you could reconsider…
 
Proactively take care of your health in order to stay out of the health care system as much as possible. I have nightmares about insurance companies. I can’t promise that I will be free of disease or injury all my life, but I have eliminated some bad habits and embraced more healthy habits in the hopes that I can maintain my health and vigor without pills or costly procedures.
 
Invest only in companies that share your values. Why would you want your dollars supporting practices that you wouldn’t be involved in? Learn about the companies you give your money to, and decide if their ethics align with the things that are important to you.
 
Live simply.
 
Want less.
 
Give more.
 
All of these things will help you to build a life of self-reliance — a life where you’re not subjected to the vagaries of the market or others’ greed. These actions have helped me save enough money to have a healthy emergency fund, plus pay down my mortgage enough so that I can refinance to save $1500 a month in payments. These actions have slashed my food costs and helped me find creative ways to ensure wellness for my family and myself. These actions have helped me help my own community.
 
As I buy my way out of mortgage debt, as I create mindfulness about what types of behaviors my money supports, as I learn to do for myself what I used to pay others to do, I’m getting closer to occupying a life of freedom.
 
I am proud of the members of the 99% who are occupying Wall Street and Main Street. I would love to join them but, if I am to be perfectly frank, if my employer found out about it I would lose the job I need to keep paying the big banks for my house. And that’s how we live today.
 
How can you occupy your life?

A Few Simple Pleasures

August 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

Americans are at a distinct disadvantage when trying to break our addiction to consumerism. Our belief that our usefulness to society extends only as far as our ability to purchase things is so deeply held that our own government refers to us as “consumers” not “citizens.” (Or worse, “employees.” But without being an employee, you’ll never be an acceptable consumer, so basically those are two connected thoughts.)

I’ve made a conscious effort to re-program my belief that owning certain things will make me happy. Even so, I still get a bit giddy when I think about getting those new barstools I’ve been ogling for over a year now. But I have made serious strides over the past few years to learn about the simple things in life that make me happy without spending money on stuff.

Here’s just a brief sampling of some of the things I’ve discovered:

  • The public library is the greatest place on the planet
  • Picnics at my local botanical garden, Quarryhill
  • Hiking the trails at our local state and regional parks
  • Birding
  • Yoga DVDs
  • Kettlebell workouts
  • Riding my bike with no particular destination
  • Walking anywhere
  • Cooking meals from scratch
  • Meal planning to ensure that none of the ingredients I buy are wasted
  • Re-reading my favorite books
  • De-cluttering my closets
  • Growing my own vegetables in our local community garden (my Anaheim Chiles are amazing!)
  • Free concerts on the town green
By focusing my attention on simpler things, I’ve found ways to fill my soul without emptying my wallet.  (I’ve watched my savings grow as well!) I’m happier, healthier and I don’t have closets full of junk I’ll never use or wear. I’ve become so much more than just a consumer, and my world has become a much happier place.
What simple things do you enjoy?

Some Updates. Plus, Clutter Corner!

August 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

Going to do a little blog housekeeping today, and update you on some of the insourcing and other projects that have been part of my Type A minimalist takeover.
 
I recently blogged about some projects that fall under the banner of “insourcing.” The upshot is that there are probably several things we each pay someone else to do, make or provide that are well within our capabilities to provide for ourselves. To prove a point (and save a little money) I recently made my own laundry detergent and toothpaste.
 
The laundry detergent project is working out incredibly well. Our clothes are clean and fresh, they smell great, my HE washer seems to do fine with it, and I have enough from my first batch to probably get me through the next six months. Highly Recommended.
 
My toothpaste was made out of baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, peppermint oil and a hearty dose of stevia (recipe below). It was very easy to make, and the ingredients cost about $15 total. I made about a cup of it at first, and my guess is I have enough ingredients to make toothpaste for the next several decades.
 
In the plus column, my teeth have never been whiter. Seriously. Ditch those Crest Whitestrips and do this for a week – but stay away from blacklights. I’m not kidding when I say my teeth are WHITE. In the minus column, the taste is just ok. Not awful. Not great. I do find that I don’t look forward to brushing my teeth as much, and using the concoction is a little drippy and messy. But overall it’s been good, and my mouth feels squeaky clean. Recommended.
 
I’ve been insourcing my own dog treats for a while now, too. Here’s the batch I cooked up yesterdy for my dog Dobby. He’s crazy about these homemade treats.
 

Dog treats made with leftover oatmeal, wheat flour and peanut butter.

 
I also have talked about my love of solid shampoos and the search for a solid conditioner.
 
I found a product made by Lush Cosmetics called Jungle. I love the way it smells, but as my hair gets longer, the solid conditioner just isn’t really working for me. I think if I had a short haircut it would be fine (would  I need conditioner at all, though, if it was really short?).  So I’m giving up on that for now, and instead opting for refilling my conditioner bottle with liquid conditioner in the bulk section at Whole Foods. Solid shampoo: Highly recommended. Solid conditioner: Not Recommended. Whole Foods bulk personal care products: Highly recommended.
 
In addition to my hair care project, I am still growing out my hair to its natural color. It feels a little drab, to be perfectly honest, but I’m ok with it. The ends are still a little blond, and I’m looking forward to the day when it’s all just the real me.
 
And lastly, I mentioned a book I’m reading that I couldn’t wait to blog about. And then I didn’t blog about it. It’s called Early Retirement Extreme by Jacob Lund Fisker. I will get to this, but I’m still a little blown away by it, and trying to piece together the best parts to share. One of the reasons I started on this minimalist path was because I wanted to create more free space in my life by working less and needing less. This book has everything (including equations and charts!) the minimalist needs to find a way to quit working so much. So in the meantime, please check it out.
 
And for the grand finale… Here’s a shot of my latest Goodwill batch. I had way too many socks…
 
 

Isn't it funny how you don't realize just how ugly all your crap is until it's in a pile headead to Goodwill?

 
And now here’s this:
 
Toothpaste recipe:
½ c baking soda
¼ c 3% hydrogen peroxide
Peppermint oil to taste
Stevia extract to taste
 
Mix it all together and store it in a jar. Give it a good shake before using.
 
What have you been up to lately?
 
 

Insourcing

July 21, 2011 § 12 Comments

We’ve become a nation of outsourcers. Not only are we sending our jobs and manufacturing overseas (a company in my backyard just shuttered its doors and sent its manufacturing to China, laying off 40 people in the process), but in our own lives we are beholden to a cadre of “experts” to help us manage the smallest details.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, in no small part to the excellent e-book by Jacob Lund Fisker, “Early Retirement Extreme.” He proposes that we should become “Renaissance [Wo]men” rather than “Wage Slaves” in order to take back control of our lives so that we can ultimately be free.

What he means by “Renaissance [Wo]man” is a person who not only can generate income from a variety of useful sources, but also someone who can manage the little disturbances that come up in daily life without having to call in an expert. A Renaissance [Wo]man knows how to fix the plumbing, repair the bike, change the oil, mend a hole-y sweater…  Renaissance [Wo]men have a diverse array of talents.

A “Wage Slave,” according to Fisker, is someone who is completely dependent on job income for everything. They specialize in one area of expertise, their career, and leave the rest to others. The garden is weeded by a gardener. The roof is repaired by a contractor. The clothes aren’t even mended, rather replaced at the boutique down the street. You get the picture.

I’ve fallen somewhere in the middle. I’ve always had a job, and it has gotten even more specialized over the years. Right now I actually just do ONE thing for the company I work for, and absolutely nothing else. However, in my personal life I have, for many years, been slowly discovering the things I can rely on myself for – and the list increases every week. My job may be specialized, but my life skills are varied and ever-changing.

Things I currently insource:

Food:

I’m a vegetarian and a foodie. This is a tough combo. Even though I live in an area where people are pretty enlightened when it comes to food, many restaurants still have very limited vegetarian selections. I’ve realized that if I want to eat in the decadent manner to which I had become accustomed when I was a carnivore, I have to take matters into my own hands. I’ve read, studied, practiced and learned everything I can about vegetarian cooking, unique ingredients, unusual spices… I’ve made my own granola (it’s so good and so much cheaper than store bought), soups, sauces, salads, hummus… Some have been complete failures, but for the most part I eat like a queen because I was willing to learn how to do it myself. (I’m converting to vegan at this point and it is a LOT of work – I’ll post on that later…) Next, I’ll be making my own tahini. I also just signed up for our community garden – no more outsourced, garlic, potatoes, beets, herbs or onions for me. I’ll be growing my own.

Household:

I had a team (a team!) of housekeepers for years, but now I clean my own house. I keep it manageable by eliminating clutter wherever possible. I just made my own laundry detergent (click here for a really solid post on this at exconsumer, which was inspired by this one at thesimpledollar). I make my own cleaning products using baking soda and vinegar. I don’t buy plastic bags to store things. Instead, I re-use jars that had things in them that I have already used. I never purchase plastic utensils or paper napkins – I just take my silverware and wash it when we get home. I recently made my own toothpaste, giving me one more way to save money and eliminate unnecessary packaging. (George is SO not on board with this one…)

Entertainment:

I gave up organized entertainment long ago, and I was recently reminded why. After paying $60 for two of us to get into an aquarium we were unable to even see anything because of the crowds. That’s just one example. I haven’t set foot in a mall in years because I don’t outsource my amusement to retail outlets. Aquariums, zoos, amusement parks, putt-putt places – all of these are out. For fun, we hike, bike, play Killer Bunnies, read, cook, identify birds, spend time with friends, nap and listen to music. We attend free concerts. One exception I’ll always make: Art museums. I love me some art.

Exercise:

I understand the need for joining a gym or hiring a trainer if you A) live in a region where you’re snowed in for several months and you like to have a warm place to work out or B) you have a particularly dicey weight, health or medical issue that requires some assistance by a pro. I’m lucky in that I live in a region where I can be outside pretty much every day and I can walk. Walking regularly combined with biking, hiking, kayaking and all those other things I naturally love to do, have helped me remain fit while I kept the money I would have spent on a gym in my wallet instead. I even do yoga workouts at home with a pretty decent library of DVDs (you can also check these out from the public library.) Basically, I’ve always insourced my exercise – and you can, too!

Travel:

I reject the notion that I NEED a car.  Cars are dangerous, expensive and dirty. Car culture is making us fat and unhealthy, and it is destroying the environment. The only reason I still have a car at all is so that I can get to the coast for hiking and to get to the corporate office when I need to. I’d be more than happy to rent a car every time I need to go a long distance, but I’m not on my own so I must compromise. But we CAN reduce our use even more. At this point, the kids can either walk or bike to school, and there’s no single destination in my hometown that can’t be reached by foot or bike. I avoid the car whenever possible, thereby insourcing my ability to move around.

Other:

I never hire painters. George and I do most of our home repairs and updates including tiling, appliance hookups and small plumbing jobs (George installed our cork floors himself, saving us thousands of dollars.)

Things that I could – and maybe should — insource, but haven’t yet:

Pedicures:

I need my feet to look sweet in the summer because I’m always in flip-flops. But why can’t I do it myself? I bet I can.

Haircuts:

Although George already cuts the kids’ hair, I can’t seem to talk him into learning to cut mine. This will probably never happen (and probably shouldn’t).

Auto repairs:

I don’t know anything about my car or how to fix it. Right now the shocks need to be fixed and the quote was nearly $500. I don’t even know where to begin to learn how to fix a car.

Bike Repairs:

Ditto above. Fortunately we haven’t needed to do too much, but there’s a bike shop a block away so it’s hard not to just pop in.

Clothing:

I don’t know how to make my own clothes. But I do know how to mend things, so that’s a start at least.

Products we use:

I don’t churn my own butter or make my own mustard. I don’t know how to make hairspray or dryer sheets. I don’t know how to make miso or vinegar or press my own olives for oil. Are these things I can learn, or should I learn to live without?

By learning to insource, you not only take back control from marketers who have made you believe that you need their products in order to be happy, but you also save gobs of money.

One small example: We used to buy delicious hummus every week from “The Hummus Guy” at our farmer’s market. It cost $7 and came in a plastic tub. I now make my own with bulk beans and herbs and it costs us about 75 cents for the same amount. It takes more time, but it’s fresher and cheaper. And what better way could I be spending my time, really?

What products/services could you insource?

Ten Ways to Save Money Right Now

June 22, 2011 § 2 Comments

I work hard for my money. Don’t we all? I like to make sure that I’m spending my ducats as wisely as possible, which is why I’m fiercely committed to eliminating all unnecessary spending.
 
My family has made some big decisions, like only owning one car and shutting off my cell phone. But we’ve also done a variety of smaller things that have helped us eliminate some wasteful spending, and gotten us even closer to our goal of paying off our mortgage.
 
Since we all work so hard, here are just a few money saving ideas that I can recommend to you that are easy as pie.
 
1. Put a plastic bottle filled with water and gravel in your toilet tank. Save gallons of water and buckets of dollars with each flush simply by displacing some of the water in your tank. In the past, people have used bricks for this same purpose, but over time the bricks can disintegrate and cause damage to your plumbing. This is by far one of the easiest money-saving tricks on my list. You’ll see the benefit on your water bill instantly.
 
2. Stop drinking soda. I’ll save my rant about corn syrup-laden sodas for another post. But I will say this: Not only will cutting soda out of your life save you money, but you’ll be healthier, you’ll feel better and the disposable containers used to convey these sugary poisons will stay out of the landfills.  The average American spends more than $300 on soda each year – what better use could you find for that money? Your teeth, your waistline, your wallet and your planet will thank you for making this small change.
 
3. Turn off your cable or satellite service. I haven’t had these services in so long that I don’t even know what they cost anymore, but it seems to me that spending any amount of money per month to watch TV is a rip-off. This is not to say that I don’t watch TV. In fact, I have the worst taste in television imaginable (it’s too embarrassing to even talk about…). But I watch everything online at hulu.com or on the network websites. I have never once missed having cable or satellite (I have also never once missed an episode of Jersey Shore — I told you it was bad) but I do love that I have one less monthly bill to pay.
 
4. Walk. Where I live, gas is topping $4.25 a gallon. This is incentive enough for me to hoof it to the store or the post office! With the weather heating up, this requires a little planning (i.e. gotta go in the morning), but that’s not a huge deal. If you live in the burbs where walking is just not an option, try combining trips or ridesharing with a neighbor. Or, if you can, take the bus. The bus takes a little longer so take a book along and make an afternoon of it.
 
5.  Shop the bulk aisle at the grocery store. You won’t believe what’s waiting for you in bulk! Cereals, oatmeal, cookies, candy, dried fruits, honey, maple syrup and spices – all at ridiculously low prices! Here’s an example: I was recently making a recipe that required a specific spice, but I only needed a tablespoon. The full-sized jar of this spice cost over $10. In the bulk section, I bought my one tablespoon for 45 cents. And now I don’t have a full jar in my pantry that I have to use up before it loses its verve. Your local store may also – like mine – offer shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers and other cosmetic needs in bulk as well. Just bring your own containers and save big!
 
6. Cancel credit cards that have yearly fees. I look at my credit card statements and bank statements online almost every day. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my current credit card slipped in a $60 annual fee! I canceled it and am now only using one that doesn’t have any fees attached to it. Check your statements regularly to make sure there aren’t any hidden surprises.
 
7. Get more sleep. What does sleep have to do with saving money? More than you think. If you’re getting enough rest, you won’t need to rely on costly energy boosters (afternoon Starbucks run, anyone?), you’ll have more energy to devote to exercising which will keep you healthier in the long run and you’ll be less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety – which can lead to irrational spending.  A recent study released by the University of British Columbia points to lack of sleep as a main indicator in our obesity epidemic, increased risk for a host of scary cancers, and the unregulated release of stress hormones. Tuck yourself in for at least nine hours a night – you’ll feel better. Plus, you can’t shop while you’re unconscious.
 
8.  Get a library card. There are books you can read at the library! For free! And movies! And CDs! And magazines! And audiobooks! You can request things and they’ll get it for you! FREE! For years I just ordered whatever I wanted from Amazon, and then I discovered this amazing resource (I felt like a dummy for not discovering the library sooner… duh.) But now I’m an absolute convert. Your taxes pay for this amazing service, so I highly recommend that you find your local library and spend some serious time there. If you’ve shut off your cable, you’re going to probably want to get some reading material or some DVDs…
 
9. Identify a few household things you can live without. I learned about six years ago that I don’t need paper towels. I learned about six months ago that I don’t need Ziploc bags. I’ve also managed to eliminate toxic household cleaners and replaced them with good old baking soda and vinegar. Cheap! By just cutting out one thing that you think you can live without, you’re already saving money.
 
10. Develop the 30-Day Rule. You’ve probably heard this one before, but let me tell you,  it works! Basically if I am jonesing for something other than an absolute necessity, I make myself wait for 30 days to purchase it. If I’m still thinking about the item in 30 days then I may give myself the go-ahead to buy – but not always. If the item is expensive, I’ll make myself wait another 30 or longer. (There’s one particular item I’ve wanted for over two years, but I’m still waiting because it just seems so impractical). More often than not I forget about the item completely. What I have realized through this little exercise is that sometimes just imagining I have something is enough to make me feel that little retail therapy boost. Crazy, but true. And I’ve pretty much trained myself out of impulse shopping.
 
There are probably more things I could throw on this list like meal planning, eating everything in your pantry, high-interest savings accounts or stopping the catalog deliveries to your house. But those things are a bit more complicated and probably require a longer post. For now, I’d like to hear from you.
 
What easy things do you do to save money? 

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